©2019 by ecolocate.

  • Lujane Al-Shaibani


Updated: Oct 7, 2019

Grooming products and cosmetics pollute our water and clog our landfill. But will pressure from consumers persuade the industry to change – and can we also make more sustainable choices? Lujane Al-Shaibani reports

Despite our best intentions as consumers, our daily choices have an impact on the environment. As we generate ever more waste, from our favourite bistros’ throwaway coffee cups to the products we use to clean, groom and present ourselves, we must make better choices.

Economic growth and population growth are increasing the levels of contaminants we release into the environment. And makers of cosmetics and personal-care brands produce ever more items to tap that demand and increase their market share.

Today, the global cosmetic products market is worth some $523.4 billion. Forecasts expect it to top $805.6 billion by 2023.

We all want to look good and feel good – but we are also ever more aware that our beauty products create waste and pollution and support unsustainable practices. As more of us realise that business as usual is not an option, can we – manufacturers and consumers – clean up our act?

The good news is, with a little planning we can reduce the waste we generate and learn to recognise and avoid grooming products and cosmetics that are bad for our health and for the environment.

PLASTIC PRODUCTS Experts estimate that 9 per cent of plastics have been recycled since the 1950s. The rest ends up in landfill or pollutes our environment. UN Environment reports that single-use plastic packaging is the main source of plastic production, with 86 per cent of our waste wrongly disposed of or ending up as litter.

Most plastics do not biodegrade. Instead, they photodegrade, slowly breaking down into small fragments known as microplastics. When fish and other forms of marine life ingest microplastics, plastic waste ends up in our food chain. Although research on microplastics is growing, we still know very little about the impact on our health.

What we do know is that the cheap, durable properties of plastic have created a take-make-dispose business model that takes a growing toll on our environment.

Our planet is drowning in plastic. Earlier this year, 40 major businesses signed Waste and Resource Action Plan’s UK Plastics Pact, seeking to reduce plastic packaging.

Personal care multinationals Unilever and Procter & Gamble and retail giant Boots promise to develop strategy and infrastructure to collect and reuse materials from discarded products and to work to deliver net benefit for natural capital from closed-loop recycling, moving towards a so-called circular economy.

POLLUTANTS But plastic is not our only problem. The chemicals that cosmetic and pharmaceutical products release into our aquatic environment threaten us too. These chemicals can be environmentally persistent, bioactive and able to bioaccumulate, raising concerns about biodiversity, our water resources and our health.

In a recent paper on the environmental and health concerns from polluting cosmetic ingredients, Claudia Juliano and Giovanni Magrini named UV filters, parabens, triclosan and microbeads on a long list of offending ingredients.

At the time of writing, Italy and Sweden were set to follow the UK in banning microbeads but the European Union was dragging its feet. Other nasties remain legal almost everywhere. These include UV filters, chemicals found in sunscreen and face creams that protect our skin from ageing and burning UV-A and UV-B rays.

When we wash, the chemicals enter our drainage systems and are flushed out to sea. Scientists have linked low levels of UV filters to coral bleaching. The chemicals are toxic to small marine organisms. This has convinced several island states including Hawaii to ban UV filters.

There are similar concerns about parabens and triclosan (TCS), preservatives used for their antimicrobial properties in soap, shampoos, detergents, toothpaste and sunscreens.

Studies suggest that in the aquatic environment, parabens and TCS damage fish, marine mammals and seabirds and their eggs. TCS can also damage human health, linked to thyroid function and endocrine problems.

Ingredients in personal-care products cause damage on land, too. Environmental groups are campaigning against unethically sourced palm oil, a hidden ingredient in many personal-care products.

Rainforests and wildlife are losing ground to industrial-scale palm-oil cultivation. Greenpeace and others have worked to expose the impact this has had on natural habitats in Borneo and Sumatra. Expanding plantations threaten the orangutan and wipe out habitats for countless other, less charismatic, species.

As consumers, we must also think about where our products come from. The personal-care sector contributes to global emissions from transport, too. Globalisation of trade has increased emissions from shipping.

This autumn’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has increased pressure on global shipping to cut its emissions soon. International Maritime Organization members were due to meet in October to thrash out a greenhouse-gas strategy for shipping to 2023.

As sustainability becomes a selling point, some “ethical” product ranges lay false claim to being cleaner and greener. Despite many claims to the contrary, one organic ingredient on a long list of chemicals does not an organic product make.


If the personal is political, personal care has become political.

Pressure is growing on manufacturers to produce cleaner, greener, more ethically sourced cosmetics and personal-grooming products. Consumers are driving demand for more sustainable alternatives.

However, ethical and sustainable products are a minefield – labels can be misleading.

The ethical beauty industry is not regulated. It falls to consumers to spot hidden nasties, often listed under various synonyms, and to avoid products that include them.

As sustainability becomes a selling point, some “ethical” product ranges lay false claim to being cleaner and greener. Despite many claims to the contrary, one organic ingredient on a long list of chemicals does not an organic product make.

When it comes to transport emissions, ordering locally can reduce our products’ carbon footprint. Researching this article led The Environment to numerous UK based ethical beauty start-ups.

Wild Sage produces handmade soaps in Hertfordshire. Scotland-based Beauty Kitchen started with one store in Glasgow and now distributes across the UK and The Netherlands. Wideye makes its products on England’s south coast, at Rye.

Delivery firms are also moving towards alternative fuels and carbon neutral shipping. Players including UPS, DHL and FedEx are looking at carbon offsetting, so that for every tonne of CO2 a package produces in transportation a verified emission-reduction project somewhere else in the world saves an equivalent amount of CO2.

But when it comes to cutting the impact from shipping, perhaps the most effective solution is to buy less and reuse more. That brings us back to the circular economy, moving away from the takemake-replace mindset.

Start-ups like South London-based Optiat could set a precedent. Optiat – short for One Person’s Trash is Another’s Treasure – focuses on sustainability, making products from ingredients that would otherwise go to landfill.

In the UK, coffee shops dump around 500,000 tonnes of coffee grounds every year. Optiat founders Anna and William Brightman spotted an opportunity to create a useful product from this waste that offers an alternative to microbeads that also reduces pressure on landfill.

Other brands that see the circular economy underpinning a cleaner grooming industry include Plaine Products and the Package-Free Store. All seek to tap growing consumer interest in a zero-waste, plastic-free lifestyle.

This mirrors regulatory moves. In April the European Union introduced the Circular Economy Package. The US and China plan similar initiatives to move supply chains to a new mindset; reuse, repair, recycle.

Circularity encourages organisations to be more involved, to take more responsibility for their products at the end of the lifecycle. It encourages a responsible approach to the planet’s finite resources, particularly when it comes to packaging.


So what’s in this for business?

Traditionally, business saw sustainability as a cost, not an opportunity. But there is growing evidence to suggest that being seen to be cleaner, greener and more ethical is good business.

The industry’s biggest players are publishing detailed sustainability plans, having found that it pays to be green. Studies suggest that consumers will pay more for products they believe to be sustainable and ethical.

Demand is growing for everything from vegan lipsticks to bamboo toothbrushes. Unilever says its sustainable ranges drove more than 60 per cent of its annual growth in 2016.

By contrast, a recent survey from Mintel found that 60 per cent of customers would ditch a brand that had “unethical practices”.

Companies that fall short – whether on animal testing or investment portfolio – can expect angry customers to call them out, on Instagram, on YouTube and on other very public platforms. Being seen to be unethical is now very bad for business.